13 July 2010

Third Bear Carnival: "The Quickening"

[This post is part of an on-going series of explorations through, investigations with, and inspirations from Jeff VanderMeer's new short story collection, The Third Bear.]

"The Quickening" is the one story original to The Third Bear, and it's a story that fascinates me because it is entirely composed of ambiguities.  I like ambiguities in fiction -- they respect the reader by assuming an intelligent audience that wants to be an active participant in the meaning and import of the tale.  (Speaking of awareness of the audience, I should note that this post will probably make most sense to people who have read the story.  Yet another reason for you to get the book!)

First, I want to suggest the narrator is unreliable and that this is a story about memory and imagination.  Let's create a corpus -- here are all the uses of the words "memory" and "remember" in the story:
  • My parents had died in an automobile accident when I was four. I had a confused memory or two of life with them that involved the snow in Minnesota and bulky, uncomfortable coats, but nothing more. (21)

  • It was a summer day, I remember. (22)

  • I remember thinking that his face shone oddly in the same way as Sensio's as he suffered his humiliation bound to the post. (24)

  • At first, we talked mostly at night, when I thought Aunt Etta couldn't hear us. I'd forgotten the strange ways in which that old bungalow could carry sound, or I'd just decided to risk it. I can't remember. (26)

  • "Remember, it's just an animal," Aunt Etta said to me, during that first meal after she discovered me talking to Sensio. This was back when she thought she might flatter Sensio into cooperating with her plans. I know she was wearing something else, but in memory she is wearing the same outfit as she did to the photo shoot. (28)

  • That was just the first of three fancy dinners, each more tense than the last. In memory, they are all mixed together, but they each had their own characteristics… (30)

  • I imagine I was screaming at her, although I can't remember making a sound. (32)

  • The circus woman, whose name I can't remember, sat on the couch and looked out at the orange orchards in the distance while I brought Sensio in and put him on the wicker chair to her left. (33)

  • I remember feeling a perverse pleasure at being a kid, at not being expected to put forth the effort. (33)

  • "She liked you, Sensio," I remember telling him. "She'd definitely help us." As if I were an adult, or had any money, or any sense. (36)

  • I know I should think of Aunt Etta every day. I know I should be kinder to her memory. I know I should be sorrier about what happened. (41)
The structure of the story itself is also relevant to this movement through memory. The narrative consists of basically two parallel, alternating structures: Structure A is a loose and nonlinear collection of memories and thoughts; Structure B is a mostly linear description of the events during the photography shoot and then immediately afterward.

Given how many times Rachel-as-narrator refers to memory and remembering, and even sometimes says she knows something is not as she remembered it, but she is presenting what is remembered anyway, there is no reason to trust her representation of events as factual within the world of the story. Instead, the events are what she prefers to remember.

But that's not all. How we remember the past affects who we are in the present. The meanings of past events are not incontrovertible. It's no coincidence that Aunt Etta hires a photographer to capture her portrait with Sensio -- photographs, to the naive mind, are a representation of truth. We're all more aware of the difficulty of assigning such truth to photographs now in the age of Photoshop, but it's as true for old photographs as for today's digital wonders. Aunt Etta has actually chosen a middle way between the obvious subjectivity of a portrait painter and the perhaps least obvious subjectivity of a documentary filmmaker -- the photograph is a moment preserved, but it's preserved without movement or (significantly for a talking rabbit) sound. Rachel has her idea of "what really happened" during the photo shoot, and what the photograph means, but that meaning is unavailable to the wider public. For though Aunt Etta wanted people to see her with Sensio, and wanted Sensio to become a lucrative attraction, instead the picture has been separated from any sort of reality, becoming instead little more than a weird image anyone can add meaning to:
You can see the photograph now, as a postcard, in antique stores and gift shops in Florida. Sometimes it comes with a funny title, like "She dealt swiftly with evildoers." It has been doctored to include shadows for both Sensio and Aunt Etta. Her clothes have been colored, as has his straitjacket uniform. Because of these changes, which make the photo look even less real, there is no chance that anyone would ever believe Aunt Etta really tied a talking rabbit to a post and, dressed in her Sunday best, had someone take a photograph of her with the rabbit. No one will ever know that I was there, too, or what happened after. (36)
The reality as Rachel perceives it is more absurd than any meaning the photograph has attracted in its career as a free-floating signifier.

Note the last sentence of that quote, too -- by reading it, we invalidate it: "No one will ever know that I was there, too, or what happened after." Well, now somebody knows. The ambiguity of the story sometimes enters the sentences of it like this, or even just at the level of grammar and syntax. For instance, sometimes when I read the first sentence of the story, "In the old, tattered photo Sensio has been dressed in a peach-colored prisoner’s uniform made out of discarded tarp and then tied to a post that Aunt Etta made me hammer into the ground," I misread it as saying the discarded tarp that became the uniform was tied to a post. Obviously, the sentence means Sensio was tied to a post, but I still hold the odd image from the other meaning in mind.

Rachel's idea of "truth" is sort of like that odd image: too strange to be credible, but appealing nonetheless. (I remember at least one other sentence with similar ambiguity for me in the story, but I didn't mark it and haven't been able to find it by quickly skimming the story. This seem appropriate.)

After Aunt Etta's death, Sensio didn't speak to Rachel again. She moved on from the trauma, Sensio died, and her life became, by her own admission, pretty standard stuff, rather boring, in fact. The excitement of her life was the excitement of having a talking rabbit and then killing her aunt. Or so she remembers it. But she's not sure, and neither are we, and nothing can be determined for sure, and that's the wonder here -- nothing can be pinned down, and everything can be re-imagined.

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